EXPERT REACTION: Bushfires raging in NSW and QLD

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Bushfires raging in NSW and Queensland have caused the loss of  more than 100 homes and at least two deaths (according to media reports). Below experts respond to the devastation and discuss the science behind this years' bushfire season.

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Expert Reaction

These comments have been collated by the Science Media Centre to provide a variety of expert perspectives on this issue. Feel free to use these quotes in your stories. Views expressed are the personal opinions of the experts named. They do not represent the views of the SMC or any other organisation unless specifically stated.

David Bowman is Professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science, and Director of the Fire Centre Research Hub in the School of Natural Sciences, The University of Tasmania

I think the key point is that this current burst of fire activity, that builds on recent (certainly since the turn of this century) unprecedent bushfires across a broad spectrum of Australian ecosystems present a critical ‘linkage’ to understand how climate change will transform bushfire behaviour, frequency and ecological impacts. What I mean, is that we are clearly transiting away from the stage of ‘what climate models tell us about the possible effects of climate change on bushfires’ to ‘observing and experiencing extreme, unusual, and ecologically and economically damaging bushfires driven by anomalous climate conditions’.  It is paramount we document (i.e. do post fire investigations of the ecological and economic impacts and climate drivers) these bushfires, as this knowledge will help use adapt to future bushfires which are set to get even more destructive.  As a society we need a much larger and more informed discussion about bushfire adaption that is grounded in the scientific reality of these destructive events, moving beyond media sensationalism. Even though these fires are currently occurring, and people are suffering great hardships, I believe It is now timely and appropriate for a discussion of the linkage between climate change and bushfire to occur, noting we need to acknowledge uncertainties and complexities.  As a society we are running out of time to adapt to climate change driven bushfires, and policy failure will lead to escalating disasters that have the capacity to eclipse the worst disasters we have experienced.

Last updated: 11 Nov 2019 6:14pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Andrew Gissing is an emergency management expert with the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC and General Manager of Resilience at Risk Frontiers

Severe fires have resulted in significant property damage and loss of life in the past. It is essential communities follow the messages of emergency services. Despite changes to policy following the devastating  Black Saturday fires in 2009 some households remain unprepared and fail to make early decisions instead waiting for smoke or fire before making decisions to leave. Leaving early is the safest action to take.

Risk Frontiers has estimated that nearly 1 million addresses in Australia are located less than 100 metres from bushland, putting them at the highest risk from bushfires — though not all those addresses have a house or structure on them. 

Risk Frontiers’ PerilAUS database shows that most Bushfire deaths have occurred on only nine days with the greatest loss of life occurring in the 2009 Black Saturday Bushfire.

Climate projections estimate an increased frequency in severe Bushfire weather in the future and a lengthening of fire seasons which inevitably will put pressure on Bushfire fighting resources and communities in Bushfire prone areas. Increased use of autonomous technologies in the future could assist fire fighting efforts.

It is likely that the fire threat in Northern NSW and South East Queensland will continue for weeks unless significant rainfall occurs assisting fire fighters to extinguish blazes.

Last updated: 11 Nov 2019 6:11pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
Andrew works for a private consultancy that provides research and modelling on natural disasters.

Grant Wardell-Johnson is an Adjunct Associate Professor in the ARC Centre for Mine Site Restoration and School of Molecular and Life Sciences at Curtin University, and Immediate Past President of the Australian Council of Environment Deans and Directors (ACEDD)

The link between climate change and fire impact is complex but unequivocal. Humanity's carbon dioxide emissions are causing global warming, which causes climate change. Climate change causes more intense weather and the increasing likelihood of catastrophic fire conditions. Weather is the overriding factor affecting fire behaviour under catastrophic conditions, when everything burns.

Society’s leaders have a responsibility to lead. They are paid to make decisions every day.  Every decision not to act in the face of a clear climate change emergency condemns their fellow citizens to increased danger through the impacts of climate change. More people are dying every day due to climate change. The many catastrophic fires locally and around the globe are an important example.

Politicians with the most blood on their hands are those that deny or downplay the links between these disasters and climate change, that minimise the impact of genuine constructive approaches, or that delay discussion of climate-caused disasters to another time.

Climate change is more serious than any war we have faced, and the impacts are greater. Should we appease climate change deniers? Surely we should deal with the crisis that humanity has caused by all the means at our disposal. Endless solutions have been presented. They need to be enacted with the utmost urgency or the situation facing us all will spiral rapidly beyond our control.

Last updated: 11 Nov 2019 3:23pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.

Dr Richard Thornton is CEO of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC.

Unfortunately we knew, along with the fire services, that this fire season had the potential to be devastating. Our Australian Seasonal Bushfire Outlook*, released in late August, showed above normal bushfire potential along the east coast of Queensland, New South Wales, the ACT, Victoria and Tasmania, as well as parts of southern Western Australia and South Australia. Firefighters in New South Wales and Queensland have been battling severe bushfires since early September, and there’s a lot left in this fire season. This fire season is influenced by the warm and dry conditions we’ve been experiencing all year. In south east Queensland and northern New South Wales, the last three years have been dry and warm – it is these conditions that are driving the severity of the current bushfires. When preceding conditions have been like this, and the bush and grass is so dry, it doesn’t take much for a fire to get going once the wind is up. Unfortunately that is what we’ve seen, not just in recent days, but over the last few months.

We need to start preparing now for these future risks, and not just the coming months, but the coming years and decades – we cannot keep doing things the same. No matter what we think we control, we will also need to be ready for the unexpected, and to do that we need to find a way to embrace uncertainty and plan for the inevitable. The issues are complex, and this is the role of research.

We cannot any longer be sure of what is possible with our seasonal cycles. We need to focus on mitigation from climate change. This is an area in critical need of further research into weather prediction, land planning, infrastructure development, population trends, and community awareness. Yes, climate change is causing more severe weather, but demographic changes are having an equal impact and deserve just as much of our attention.

* The Australian Seasonal Bushfire Outlook: August 2019 is available at https://www.bnhcrc.com.au/hazardnotes/63

Last updated: 09 Nov 2019 5:04pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Dr Paul Read is Senior Research Fellow at the Monash Sustainability Institute at Monash University and a Co-Director of the National Centre for Research in Bushfire and Arson

Seemingly unquenchable fires down the Eastern coast are feeling increasingly unprecedented and reminiscent of some of Australia's worst, described by survivors as 'apocalyptic' 'beasts'.  The most important message for those immediately affected is to remain vigilant, keep on top of escalating trends as the situation unfolds, leave early if possible, and don't overestimate your powers to fight this.  Bushfires can reach temperatures hotter than a Bunsen burner at 100 metres.
 
Is this situation unprecedented and how will it affect health?  Apart from sheer size, another take-home message is that the fires burning since October started much earlier than usual and will get worse as Summer gets closer.  I also think it will expand northwards and southwards across the whole of the Eastern seaboard.
 
The number of hectares burnt can help estimate human fatalities, and here we have levels beyond this, yesterday (Friday) there were 80 fires across 370,000 hectares in NSW.  Sadly I expect more deaths by dint of sheer size and, despite their best efforts, the stretching of emergency service capabilities, quite apart from burns and immediate respiratory deaths. We might need help this Summer.
 
Apart from destroying life, homes and habitat, it will be affecting human, plant and animal health, even outside of the fire's path.  
 
An air quality index (AQI) above 300 is considered hazardous to everybody, not just the vulnerable, and usually prompts a community alert as it can lead to life-threatening medical emergencies. In the past week or two, we've already seen AQIs beyond this range in The Hunter, Central Coast, Sydney and Illawarra. Today (Sat 9) parts of Queensland have reached vast levels up to 407, much higher than most of Indonesia during last month's Borneo fires where 100,000 deaths and premature deaths were expected based on actual results in 2015. Note the words 'premature death' is of concern for all residents and not just those in the fires' direct pathways.  
     
What is the underlying contribution of drought and/or climate change to the intensity of the fires? To understand the role of climate change in these fires we first need to see where each and every Australian climate driver is sitting at the present moment.  An anomaly outside of their combined effects, and there have already been several temperatures much higher than seasonally expected, could suggest climate change, especially if the evidence for other anomalies emerge from, for example, farmers' and firefighters' datasets alongside bureau meteorological trends.  At present, we're coming out of a negative Southern Annular Mode that's caused drought from hotter West winds, so the fuel load is already crisp, and we've been getting deeper into the hot cycle of the El Nino Southern Oscillation since late 2018.  On a much longer timeframe, the world is supposed to be entering a cold-snap based on the Milankovitch cycles but temperatures around the world have been knocking over records for hottest years and even decades.  
 
So is it climate change?  Jury's always out when it comes to science, as it should be, but I'd lay bets that it is climate change affecting our seasons.  And this is scary for everybody.  We need to sensibly, gently (but rapidly) adjust our ways of doing economics and politics worldwide, at the same time strengthening our capacity to cope with natural and man-made disasters.  Bushfires are, after all, a combination of both

Last updated: 09 Nov 2019 5:01pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Professor Ross Bradstock is in the Centre for Environmental Management of Bushfires at the University of Wollongong

The situation in northern NSW is unprecedented in terms of the amount active fire, extensive dryness and exposure of human communities along the coast. Thus we are seeing a tragic conjunction of circumstances that reflects decades of encroachment of urban and peri-urban development along the coast and hinterlands with resultant exposure of people and property. The disastrous 2018 fire in the coastal community of Tathra was a harbinger of things to come, not only now but into the future as our forests continue to dry under climate change. This unfortunate mix of urban and peri urban development into drying, fire prone landscapes is playing out across the world: e.g. California. 

Sadly, given the weather forecast for the coming week, the crisis may worsen and extend southward into landscapes primed to burn via extreme dryness.

Last updated: 09 Nov 2019 2:23pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Jim McLennan is a Bushfire Safety Researcher and Adjunct Professor at the School of Psychology and Public Health at La Trobe University

The devastating bushfires in NSW and Queensland are unprecedented in terms of being so early going into the south-eastern Australian bushfire season, and where they are burning. These areas have rarely had intense fires because of their moist soils and vegetation. However, the fire situation is consistent with our new world of bushfire threat associated with climate change. Residents have previously not had to contend with such intense fires threatening so many locations. Levels of property preparation to resist ember attack, and household readiness to evacuate, are both likely to be lower than desirable. Local fire and emergency services personnel will be stretched to manage what is likely to be ‘new territory’ for many. Emergency management authorities will probably have to re-examine their bushfire risk mitigation plans and resourcing to adapt to this new level of threat.

Last updated: 09 Nov 2019 2:15pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.

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